The Mystery Revealed

Colossians 1:24-2:23 

 

Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness—the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.

I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.  (Colossians 1:24 – 2:5)

 

Some of you are old enough to remember the drama and suspense – the hype that was built up for weeks ahead of time as we were promised that Geraldo Rivera would reveal the fortunes and the secrets of Al Capone’s vault – the night came for the heralded TV show, drug out for an hour, increasing the suspense as they got closer and closer. Finally, they broke open the vault and… there was nothing there! Ah, but we love a good mystery filled with drama and suspense. Or maybe you don’t.

 

Tell the truth now – do you turn to the last page of the book to find out how it’s going to end?  Do you take a peek at the answer when you’re stumped on a crossword puzzle? Gone online to find out the secret code on how to beat the next level on your favorite video game?

 

Paul introduces a word here which to many of us may be a little unsettling – the word “mystery.”  We like our religion cut and dried, neat and tidy, unambiguous, all the loose ends tied together. 

 

It was a word that was familiar to the Colossians – “mystery” and “religion” went hand in hand.  They were surrounded with “mystery religions” in which the uninitiated were enticed with promises of secrets revealed and passwords and formulas and incantations taught that would usher them into a higher state of enlightenment. 

 

But there was a significant distinction between the “mystery religions” and Christianity.  Their mysteries, when revealed, were like Al Capone’s vault – empty and valueless – a lot of hype over nothing.  But when God reveals a mystery, it’s not just to the few select adherents, it’s to all of creation.  And it’s not a meaningless piece of trivia, but the most important information you will ever receive.

 

The mystery of which Paul speaks was hidden for ages and generations – Peter wrote, “the prophets searched intently and with the greatest care trying to find out the time and circumstances” and “even angels longed to look into these things.”

 

There are some things beyond the knowing of men, beyond the wisdom and knowledge of philosophies, beyond the investigation of science – beyond anybody’s ability to grasp or define.

 

But in one defining moment in time, God took the wraps off and revealed this long hidden mystery. The mystery?  Christ crucified and resurrected.  The significance of the revealing of this mystery (Paul calls it “the glorious riches of this mystery”)?  “Christ in you.”

 

And your reaction to this revelation?  “That’s it?  That’s all?” And though you’re so familiar with it that it doesn’t come as any surprise, in the first century world, it was mind-boggling.  From John 1, where John says that though “he was in the world, and the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” to 1 Cor. 1, where Paul writes, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” 

 

You see, what Paul is saying when he says “Christ in you” is so profound and significant that it changes everything.  He is saying that God is not distant and far off, impersonal and unconcerned. He is declaring that God knows us and cares for us personally – it is an intimate relationship – we are precious to God.  And that, what is so mind-boggling, is that this Jesus whom he had just described as “the image of the invisible God” and “the creator of all things” – he lives in us.

 

I hope that you’re also gathering here that when Paul talks about mystery, that it’s more than just waking up on Christmas morning to find out what Santa’s brought you.  It’s more significant than just discovering what the secret to the “secret sauce” is on a Big Mac.

 

The revealed mystery is the cornerstone to life – it is the reason for existence.  Paul uses a lot of that kind of language in this passage – “for the sake of … to present to you … so that … to this end… my purpose … in order that ….”

 

And if that’s not enough, Paul lets us know the lengths to which he has been willing to go to deliver this revealed mystery to every person who would listen:

Vs. 24 – “I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”

Vs. 29 – “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.”

Vs. 2:1 – “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you…”

 

A couple of notes on what Paul just said: verse 24 – what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions?  Was there something missing from the atonement?  Something inadequate about our salvation?

 

Let me assure you that your salvation is intact – that Christ didn’t forget something that Paul had to come along and remedy.  It’s not that his suffering was inadequate, it is that it is incomplete until we share in it.  A couple of clarifying verses:

Rom. 8:17 – “Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Phil. 3:10 – “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”

1 Peter 2:21 – “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

 

As long as the suffering of Christ remains an impersonal, distant historical event – we will never value it.  We might appreciate it, but we cannot value it until we have ourselves shared in it and experienced it and participated in it.  It is only when our faith costs us something that we begin to sense the depth of the cost which Christ paid for our salvation.

 

And lest you think that Paul is bragging about what he has done, he assures us it is not his strength or power, but “with all his energy [i.e., God’s energy], which so powerfully works in me” (vs. 29).

 

Is the payoff worth it?  You tell me.  In vs. 28, Paul said his goal was to “present everyone perfect in Christ.”  In 2:2 he said his purpose was that “they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding.”

Listen to the blessings Paul sees coming from receiving the grace of God through the good news of Jesus Christ:

  • You are perfect in Christ,

  • You are encouraged in heart

  • You are united in love

  • You receive the full riches of complete understanding

  • (finally and most important) Christ is in you.

     

    Verse 5 ended with an admonition to be firm in their faith – but firm in the faith doesn’t mean dead in your tracks.  Faith is not a position to hold, but a life to live.

    Verse 6 takes us forward:

    Paul says, if the mystery revealed is that Christ is living in you, then you must “continue to live in him.”

     

    And what does it mean to “live in him”? It means you are

     “rooted and built up in him,” that you are “strengthened in the faith as you were taught,” and that you are “overflowing with thankfulness.”

     

    Our faith must have strong roots, and from those roots we grow and are built up in him.  We become strong – not by abandoning our faith, but by going back again and again to the source of our faith.  Some were suggesting that the Christians in Colossae grow out of their simple faith to something more sophisticated. But that’s not what Paul is saying. He is saying we need to continue to build upon the fundamentals, continue to grow up, healthy and fruitful.

     

    There are similar calls to those early Christians to hold on to the faith they were taught – Paul to the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly abandoning your faith”, Jude writes: “I urge you to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

     

    The faith of the Christians in Colossae is under attack.  The attack is coming in the form of religious alternatives and substitutions and compromises.  We might be tempted to look at this conflict as a mere debate over ideas, but Paul couches this conflict in the language of warfare – vs. 8 “let no one take you captive” / vs. 15 “having disarmed the powers… triumphing over them…”  He uses other conflict language – vs. 16 “Do not let anyone judge you…” / vs. 18 “don’t let anyone disqualify you for the prize.”

     

    Who is it that presents such a great danger to their faith? What is the nature of this teaching that threatened the church? It was especially dangerous because it looked so innocent – even godly – from the outside. They taught things that seemed to make sense and often couched their teaching in Christian language. It’s easy to imagine that these Christians listened to what these teachers had to say, and thought, “What’s the harm in that?” More than that, these teachings just seemed more “religious.” But as Paul wrote to Timothy, they “have a form of godliness, but deny its power.”

     

    Here in ch. 2, Paul presents the defining characteristics of what has often been called the Colossian heresy – the brand of false teaching that threatened the church and the faith of the Christians in Colossae.

    8 – hollow and deceptive philosophy

    8 – depends on human tradition

    8 – basic principles of the world

    16 – judged on the basis of what you eat and drink, keeping religious festivals, new moon celebrations and Sabbaths

    18/23 – false humility

    18 – emphasizes the worship of angels

    18 – great emphasis on experiential – visions

    18 – unspiritual minds puff up with idle notions

    21 – filled with rules – “do not handle, taste, touch”

    22 – based on human commands and teachings

    23 – has the appearance of wisdom

    23 – self-imposed worship

    23 – demands the harsh treatment of the body

     

    Paul makes it clear again and again that what characterizes these different teachings and philosophies is that they are absolutely bankrupt and incapable of making anyone more spiritual or closer to God.

     

    They are hollow, deceptive, based on human tradition, a shadow of reality, false humility, they are unspiritual, puffed up, idle notions, destined to perish, they have the appearance of wisdom, self-imposed worship, and they lack any value.

     

    Paul literally says, “why would you waste your time?”

    Beyond its bankruptcy, he puts it in stark contrast with true faith in God.

  • 8 - “basic principles of this world, rather than Christ”

  • 17 - “shadow of things to come… the reality is in Christ”

  • 19 - “it has lost connection with the Head…”

 

In verses 9 – 23, Paul defines three basic issues for Christians – how you can know you are standing on solid ground and how can you defend yourself against these false teachings?:

What you believe

How you live

How you are saved

 

What you believe

Christ is not a lesser god – an emanation in a complex hierarchy. Paul writes in vs. 9 “for in Christ all the fullness of deity lives.”  In vs. 10 “he is the head over every power and authority.”  In 1:15 “he is the image of the invisible God.”

 

Christ will not take his place among the pantheon of gods, ancient or modern day.  Christianity is not simply another philosophy. What we believe about Christ is important – bad theology creates bad living.

How you live

One of the things Paul contrasts with Christ is “the basic principles of the world” (vss. 8,20) – the abc’s of this world.  Are you living by the world’s rules and agenda?

 

Real life isn’t going to be found in asceticism (denying yourself) – nor is it going to be found in materialism and hedonism (indulging yourself).  Both extremes keep us from seeing God.  Both those extremes were characteristic of these “mystery religions.”  The reason is that they focus on self (they create “false humility,” “puffed up egos,” “appearance of wisdom”) – the bottom line, Paul says is, “they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” In other words, after all your best intentions and efforts, you will still find yourself lost in sin and hopeless without Christ.

 

Real life is going to be found in Christ:

  • 10 – you have been given fullness in Christ

  • 13 – you have been made alive in Christ

  • 17 – the reality is found in Christ

How You Are Saved

These false teachers would have us believe that salvation is found in what we do – our self-imposed harsh treatment of the body, the correct attention to religious days and rituals, to the keeping of food regulations and restrictive rules.

 

But Paul sums them up with these words – “human traditions, human commands, human teachings.”  They may look good on the outside, they may have an appearance of spirituality and wisdom, but they are spiritually bankrupt, incapable of saving us.

 

Our salvation is to be found in Christ and Christ alone – you have “been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col 2:12).

 

And because of that, our sins are forgiven – “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col 2:13-15) 

 

He uses dramatic language. He communicates just how powerful our Savior is.  We are not dealing with mere philosophies and human inadequacies, we are dealing with the God of all creation.  It is this God who calls us to be rooted in Christ, grow in Christ, be strengthened in faith, and continue to live in him.

 

The most powerful thing I get out of this passage is Paul’s encouragement to keep on growing.  How do you do that when you’re being attacked and enticed from every side?  You make sure your roots are planted deep in God’s word.  You keep surrounding yourself with the nurture of God’s people.  You keep reaching up for Christ in worship and praise and prayer, and overflowing with thanksgiving.

 

Avoid the enticements of the world – turn a deaf ear to the so-called “wisdom” of those who tell you they’ve got a better way – don’t buy into the spirituality of those who make promises of God’s love based on the things you don’t do.

 

Let Christ be your fullness. He is everything you need – nothing more, nothing less.